28 August 2018

‘Innovation’ Drops From the Agenda as Yet Another Sitting Australian Prime Minister Given the Boot

Et tu BruteLast week, Australia got a new Prime Minister, with former Treasurer Scott Morrison replacing former lawyer, investment banker, tech investor, and republican Malcolm Turnbull.  However, lest any foreigners, hermits, or future historians who have perhaps stumbled upon this article in the National Library’s Pandora Archive, assume that this is a sign of a robust democracy recognising the will of the people, I should point out that it was not as a result of a general election, but of internal sniping and fighting within a governing party.  As many readers will be aware, this is now ‘normal’ in Australia – the last elected Prime Minister to actually lead their party to a subsequent election was John Howard in 2007.  Since then, we have had just three further elections, but five changes of Prime Minister.

In September 2015, when Turnbull deposed Tony Abbott as Prime Minister of Australia, a wave of positive sentiment swept through Australia’s innovation community – among which I count the many entrepreneurs, scientists, researchers, technologists, investors, and associated professional services providers (including patent attorneys) whom I encountered at various meetings, events, and seminars during those heady early days of the Turnbull Government.  The reason for this was partly because many of those people viewed Malcolm Turnbull as a kindred spirit, with personal, hands-on experience as an investor in technology businesses, and a generally progressive and positive attitude towards science, technology, and innovation.  Additionally, Turnbull’s first major policy announcement was of an investment of A$1.1 billion over four years in a ‘national innovation and science agenda’, in which he called for an ‘ideas boom’ to replace the ‘mining boom’ (and, more generally, Australia’s reliance on primary industry for exports), and declared his desire to see a cultural shift to embrace risk-taking, and destigmatise failure.

Ah… halcyon days!

Over less than three years, however, most of that initial positive energy has dissipated, to be replaced with disillusionment and disappointment, as talk of innovation at the top levels of government petered out to little more than a whisper.  And now, with the change in ‘leadership’ (I use the word advisedly), it seems that ‘innovation’ is completely off the agenda.  In particular, in announcing his new Cabinet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has ditched the word entirely, with Karen Andrews being appointed Minister for Industry, Science and Technology (which presumably means that the Department formerly known as Industry, Innovation and Science is to be similarly renamed), and former Minister for Jobs and Innovation, Michaelia Cash, now appointed as Minister for Small and Family Business, Skills and Vocational Education.

So how did this happen?  How did ‘innovation’ go from a A$1.1 billion policy imperative to being a dirty word in government in under three years?

The truth may be that innovation was always a dirty word to many people in the wider Australian community.  While last week’s spectacle of infighting and back-stabbing in Canberra was largely unedifying, I did read one thing in all of the reporting and commentary surrounding it that was news to me, and gave me pause for thought.  Buried in a piece by Fairfax’s Matthew Knott entitled The Battle for the Soul of the Liberal Party I encountered this paragraph:

Turnbull's first major policy move as PM, the national innovation and science agenda, was supposed to launch an "ideas boom". But when the government realised all its innovation talk actually scared voters, rather than exciting them, it was shelved.

Wait… what?!  The ‘ideas boom’ and the ‘innovation agenda’ did not just gradually fade away as focus was taken by more pressing matters, but was deliberately dropped, because it scared voters?!  (What are we – a nation of Garths?)

I was surprised by this, presumably because I live in a bubble in which it is taken for granted that ‘innovation’ (however we might define the term) is a good thing.  But, thinking further about it, I realise that I should not have been surprised.  I know that there are many people in the community who fear that automation and new technologies pose a threat to their livelihood.  And I know that there is an aversion to risk, and a fear of failure, in the wider Australian culture, that was always going to make Turnbull’s cultural shift a difficult proposition – I have written fairly recently about how this negatively impacts Australia’s conversion of world-leading innovation ‘inputs’ (e.g. education and research) into commercial outputs, and about Australians’ poor attitudes towards intellectual property.  (So, yes – we are a nation of Garths.  We fear change!)

So why would I be surprised that the ‘i-word’ does not play well with voters in ‘middle Australia’?

What this probably means is that ‘innovation’ is dead as an explicit policy issue for the foreseeable future at the federal level in Australia.  Presumably both sides of politics now regard the word as electoral poison – at least in the marginal electorates that matter most to them.

Of course, this does not mean that policies and programs that support innovation activities, such as R&D and technology commercialisation, are a thing of the past.  What it does mean, however, is that politicians are unlikely to support or sell such policies or programs under the rubric of ‘innovation’.  Likewise, any person or organisation seeking to lobby parliamentarians or promote an ‘innovation’ agenda to the Australian Government might be well-advised to avoid the ‘i-word’.


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